The most popular sitcoms of all time share three characteristics: memorable characters, timeless humor, and the ability to delight new audiences via reruns, DVD/Blu-ray sales and streaming through services like Netflix and Hulu.
"I Love Lucy"
The antics of Lucille Ball in her sitcom "I Love Lucy" are legendary. Episodes like "Job Switching" (also known as the 'Candy Factory' episode) from season two are still entertaining audiences 60 years later. The images of Lucy and her best friend Ethel stuffing chocolates into their mouths as candies whiz past on the factory conveyor belt are iconic. The show ran from 1951 until 1957. Lucy's real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, played her on-screen hubby, Ricky Ricardo. Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz) and William Frawley (Fred Mertz) played their landlords and best friends. It was the highest-rated series on television during four of its seasons, always finishing in the top three shows. The episode where Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky captured 44 million viewers (at the time, only 72 percent of U.S. households had a television). Even when the series ended in 1957, "I Love Lucy" was still the country's No. 1 sitcom.
"The Honeymooners" only ran for 39 episodes in 1955 and 1956. It aired on CBS and featured Jackie Gleason as the loudmouthed, bus-driving Ralph Kramden. Despite having a relatively short run in primetime, the show's popularity soared. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, "No premise has been seen in so many different guises in the history of television -- aired live, film and tape; in black and white and color; as sketch comedy, situation comedy, and musical. It succeeded on network, syndicated and cable television." Audrey Meadows starred as Alice Kramden, Ralph's wife, while Art Carney played his best friend Ed Norton. Joyce Randolph completed the cast as Trixie, Ed's wife.
"The Dick Van Dyke Show"
CBS was a powerhouse for early sitcoms. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" ran on the network from 1961 until 1966 and featured the talents of Dick Van Dyke, who was already an established star. Van Dyke was known for his musical roles in movies such as Bye Bye Birdie and Mary Poppins. The sitcom was the brainchild of Carl Reiner, loosely based on his 1958 novel Enter Laughing. In addition to Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, the show starred a young Mary Tyler Moore as his wife Laura, Rose Marie as Sally Rogers and Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell. It won 15 Emmy awards throughout its run, and Mary Tyler Moore earned a Golden Globe as Best TV Star Female in 1965.
"M*A*S*H,' a CBS comedy, aired from 1972 through 1983. It was based on the 1970 movie of the same name and featured an all-star ensemble cast. Alan Alda starred as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce alongside McLean Stevenson (Col. Blake), Harry Morgan (Col. Potter), Loretta Swit (Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan), Jamie Farr (Klinger), Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilley), Wayne Rogers (Trapper), Mike Farrell (B. J. Hunnicut), Larry Linville (Frank Burns) and David Ogden Stiers (Charles Emerson Winchester III). The show didn't do well in its first season and was almost canceled. It eventually gained popularity and was always one of the top 20 over the course of its long run. Its final episode attracted the largest viewing audience for a single television program episode, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
"Seinfeld" ran for eight years from 1990 until 1998 on NBC. Jerry Seinfeld played himself in this sitcom about a neurotic stand-up comedian and his life as a New Yorker. The show successfully combined the talents of Seinfeld with three co-stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, Jason Alexander as George and Michael Richards as the outlandish Kramer. Together, the four were the backbone for the show that was known as a comedy about nothing. "Seinfeld" was a sitcom that took its gags from casual, everyday situations. Some examples are the episodes "The Junk Mail,' "The Jacket" and "The Big Salad." The show won several awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1997.
Honorable mentions for most popular sitcoms of all time include "All in the Family", "Gilligan's Island,' "The Cosby Show" and "Friends."